Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2008

In the News:

World's Smallest Snake Creates a Big Up Roar - Residents of the Caribbean Island of Barbados are a bit miffed at Penn State University evolutionary biologist S. Blair Hedges who recently scientifically described a snake and therefore gets credit as the species "discoverer." The snake which is well known to locals, Hedges has named after his wife with the scientific moniker of Leptotyphlops carlae. It is thought to be the smallest snake in the world with adults only reaching a length of 4 inches. Barbados residents, who refer to it as the thread snake, are annoyed at Hedges because they feel that the scientist is making it sound like they are unaware of "things in our own backyard." However under scientific protocol the Hedges is the first person to scientifically describe and classify the species and has the right to give it the scientific name

Elementary Teacher Make Massive Astronomical Discovery - A Dutch elementary teacher is being credited with having discovered a previously unknown astronomical object. Hanny van Arkel, 25, doesn't even own a telescope, but made her discovery though the internet. Working as a volunteer work for project Galaxy Zoo, a Web site that enlists the public's help in identifying galaxies, she came across a something she could not classify. The object is composed of hot gas, has a greenish color and a strange hole in the center. The astronomers who run the project were unable to classify it either and are hoping they will be able to get time on the Hubble Telescope to take a closer look. The object has been nicknamed "Hanny's Voorwerp." Project galaxy enlists the help of volunteers to examine results from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey where there are far too many pictures for professional astronomers to handle and computers do not have the pattern recognition ability to do the work as well as the human mind.

Colossal Squid Probably Docile - Scientists examining the body of a colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), that was captured of the coast of New Zealand last year, have determined that the animal was probably very docile rather that a sleek predator. "The colossal species has a reputation for being an aggressive and dangerous predator and have been feared and misrepresented in the past," according to marine biologist Steve O'Shea of Auckland's University of Technology. The researchers' analysis of this specimen has shown that "as she got older she got shorter and broader and was reduced to a giant gelatinous blob, carrying many thousands of eggs," O'Shea explained. The scientists think her shape affected her behavior and ability to hunt. "I can't imagine her jetting herself around in the water at any great speed, and she was too gelatinous to have been a fighting machine," said O'Shea. "It's likely she was just blobbing around the seabed carrying her brood of eggs, living on dead fish, while her mate was off hunting."

Chopper Used to Track Dinos - The Bureau of Land Management is using a helicopter and a special camera to photograph a landscape full of dinosaur footprints near Utah's Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The 3-acre site is crisscrossed with the fossilized tracks of at least six species of dinosaurs. The camera is able to pick up tracks as small as a centimeter long and the resulting photographs will be used to give researchers a three-dimensional map and images of the tracks ways. The maps will help "possibly determine what they were doing," said Neffra Matthews, a geographer with BLM. The area contains tens of thousands of tracks, ranging from chicken-sized animals to some that were as long as 20 feet.

Big Foot Hoax Gets Cop Fired - Clayton County, Georgia, Deputy Sheriff Matthew Whitton got fired for his participation in a sasquatch hoax last month. Whitton, along with his partner Ricky Dyer, obtained a large ape costume, filled it with road kill meat, dropped it into a freezer, and then claimed they had found it in the mountains of northern Georgia. On Saturday, August 17, 2008, they showed the supposed corpse at a press conference in Indiana attended by various Sasquatch researchers. The researchers quickly realized the hoax and confronted the pranksters who admitted they had perpetrated the hoax for fun. Whitton's boss, Jeff Turner, the chief of Police of Clayton County, Georgia, didn't get the joke and has fired Whitton. Once he perpetrated a fraud," Turner said, "that goes into his credibility and integrity. He has violated the duty of a police officer." In addition the two men are under investigation for fraud after selling the "body" for $50,000.


Science Quote of the Month - "I am tired of all this thing called science here....We have spent millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped." - Senator Simon Cameron, 1901, on government funding.


What's New at the Museum:

The "Mystery" of the Bermuda Triangle - Are ships, boats and planes disappearing off the coast of Florida? Check our update on this classic page. > Full Story



Ask the Curator:

DNA vs GENES - I would like to know the difference between DNA and genes. - Kamini

DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. It is a double-stranded, helical nucleic acid molecule that encodes information hereditary information for almost all living organisms. A gene is one section of the DNA that controls a specific function or characteristic.

DNA is arranged like a twisted ladder with the up and down rails composed of sugar molecules and phosphate molecules connected to rungs made of either adenine and thymine or guanine and cytosine. One section of rail and a half rung is called a nucleotide and each nucleotide can be connected with others to make both sides of the ladder and to make the ladder longer. Because the half rungs (called bases) can be either adenine, thymine, guanine or cytosine, there are four different types of nucleotides. The order of the nucleotides on the ladder is important as this is how information is encoded into the DNA. It is not unlike the zeros and ones that encode information for computer program.

A group of consecutive nucleotides on the ladder that composes the instructions necessary to make one protein is called a gene. The protein molecule that the gene makes may control characteristics like a person's eye color, hair color, etc. On average a gene includes 3000 nucleotides, but for some simple proteins only a few dozen may be needed. Not all DNA nucleotides are part of a gene. There are lengthy intergenic regions in between most genes that either have no function or a regulatory function the scientists are only yet beginning to understand.

Humans are believed to have about 20,000 - 25,000 genes. More than ninety-nine percent of these genes are shared by all humans with only less than a percent involved in giving us all those traits that make use individuals. (In fact chimps, our closet biological relatives, have the 96% of the same DNA we do). Human DNA is also split up into unconnected sections called chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. A child gets one half of each pair from their mother and the other half from their father which is why a child might have their father's wide set eyes, but their mother's eye color. Chromosome number 23 is known as the sex chromosome because females carry two X types and males carry one Y and one X.

The DNA in a gene is divided up into two components. A "non-coding" section that simply indicates whether the gene is "on" or "off" (sometimes referred to the gene being "expressed" or not) and a "coding" section which contains the instructions to build the protein. The DNA does not build the protein itself but transcribes the information to RNA (Ribonucleic acid) to do the work. RNA looks and acts a lot like DNA, but is made up of only one half of the twisted ladder and uses a few alternate materials. In a few cases gene may not make a protein at all, but just RNA which is then used in another part of the protein synthesis operation.

Every cell in our body carries a copy of our DNA and parts of that DNA are very specific to each person, which is why it has become as important as fingerprinting to establish identity. Just a few cells left behind at a crime scene through a strand of hair can be enough to let police positively identify someone as the perpetrator. DNA can also predict if a person will get certain disease. For example, Tay-Sachs, which is a fatal disease often afflicting Eastern European Jews, has been shown to be the result a mutated and non-functioning HEXA gene. Other genes may not directly cause a disease, but increase the likelihood of a person getting ill. For example, researchers have shown that people with a nonfunctioning CREB gene are at an increased risk for anxiety and alcoholism.

The DNA actually looks like a super-tiny thread and is impossible to see without the use of an electron microscope. Typically it is curled up on itself so it can fit inside a microscopic cell. If you were to uncurl the DNA in a single cell, however, it would stretch out to about three feet in length and contain three billion base pairs.

Have a question? Click here to send it to the curator.


In History:

Speaking of Bigfoot...- In September of 1975 near Noxie, Oklahoma, farmer Ken Tosh claimed to have had several run ins with six or seven foot tall brown hairy bipeds with glowing eyes. "The eyes glowed in the dark, redish-pink eyes," stated Tosh. On tree occasions a neighbor, Marion Parret fired upon the creatures, but with little effect on the animal except to swat at its arm as if bothered by a fly. The creatures smelled like sulfur and left a three-toed track. Once Tosh and his brother-in-law spotted two of the creatures simultaneously - one with red eyes and the other with yellow eyes.


In the Sky:

Triangle of Planets - See if you can spot Mercury, Venus and Mars - the three planets closest to earth - in the sky earlier this September. The three form a triangle less than six degrees wide in the western sky, near the horizon, just after sunset. Don't wait to check this out. By the end of the mouth Mars and Mercury will have dropped below the horizon and only Venus will be visible.



Author Attempts to Explain "Dancing Plague"- In July of 1518 a strange plague erupted in Strasbourg, France. Hundreds of people involintaraly took to the streets and danced for days until they dropped. In the end several dozen died of exhustion or heart attacks. Scienitsts have debated the cause of this event. Known diseases can account for a person trembling, shaking or convulsing, but not a the cordinated dance observed in Strasbourg. Historian John Waller, author of the forthcoming book, "A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518," thinks the illness was caused by a "mass psychogenic illness," a form of mass hysteria. According to Waller the period preceeding the incident was one of tremendous psychological stress due to bad weather, crop failure, famine and disease. The legend of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., who said he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing was also in peoples minds. Under these conditions, Waller states, victims often go into an involuntary trance state, fueled by psychological stress and the expectation of succumbing to an altered state.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Hitler's Sunken Secret - An expedition to the bottom of Norway's Lake Tinn illuminates Nazi Germany's nuclear ambitions. On PBS - September 9 at 8 pm.

Nova: Einstein's Big Idea- The story behind the world's most famous equation, E = mc2. On PBS - September 16 at 8 pm.

Monster of the Milky Way - Does a supermassive black hole lurk at the center of our galaxy? On PBS - September 23 at 8 pm.

Secrets of the Dinosaur Mummy - While exploring the Montana badlands a team of amateur fossil hunters led Nate Murphy to uncover the world's most complete dinosaur mummy. Employing state-of-the-art imaging scientists are able to unlock the most detailed images of dinosaur anatomy. On the Discovery Channel. Sep 14, 9:00 pm; Sep 15, 1:00 am; Sep 15, 9:00 pm; Sep 16, 1:00 am; ET/PT

Dinosaurs: Return To Life? - Dinosaurs: Return to Life follows scientists who are using the latest technology and amazing advances in genetic research to revive the possibility of creating a living breathing dinosaur, but in a different way than we ever imagined. On the Discovery Channel. Sep 14, 10:00 pm Sep 15, 2:00 am; Sep 15, 8:00 pm; Sep 16, 12:00 am; ET/PT

The Mystery of the Human Hobbit - It was the most striking scientific discovery of last year. An entirely new species of mini-human found on an island in Indonesia. Is the hobbit a new species that transforms our view of evolution, or is it simply a very small, modern human being? On the Science Channel. Sep 02, 9:00 pm; Sep 03, 12:00 am; Sep 03, 4:00 am; Sep 07, 5:00 pm; Sep 29, 8:00 pm; Sep 29, 11:00 pm; Sep 30, 3:00 pm; Oct 01, 3:00 am; ET/PT

MonsterQuest: Giant Killer Snakes - Head deep into the Venezuela wilderness where there have been sightings of huge man-eating snakes--anaconda. For the first time ever an industrial acoustic sonar camera will be used to search for these monsters. The investigation will also search the Everglades of Florida where pet pythons have escaped and are multiplying and growing to huge sizes, preying on all kinds of animals, even swallowing a full grown alligator in one case. Could a human become their next victim? On the Science Channel. September 04 08:00 PM; Friday, September 05 12:00 AM ET/PT

MonsterQuest: Giant Squid Found? - Is the legend of the Kraken, a tentacled beast as large as a whale, based on myth or a real creature? Take an expedition to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico where fishermen regularly claim to encounter large schools of giant squid. Watch as squid expert Scott Cassel uses lures with built-in cameras in an attempt to video a Kraken-sized squid 1,000 feet below the ocean. What Cassel and his team discover will make history. One-part history, one-part science and one part monster, discover the truth behind legendary creatures. On The History Channel. Wednesday, September 10 08:00 PM; Thursday, September 11 12:00 AM; ET/PT.


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